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Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Lord, save me,” he cried...
In the history of Christian theology, indeed, in the history of all human thinking about God we come across many polarities, many areas of tension between two opposed and extreme ways of thinking.
Is Christianity the only way into God, or is it the pinnacle of a mountain of many insights into the presence and the will of the Almighty, or merely one option in the sweetshop of divine goodies?
Is the human person fundamentally good or fundamentally sinful?
Does Creation have a purpose, or is it completely random?
And, the most important of all, perhaps: Is God knowable or unknowable? Is he beyond all of our experience, or integrated within it? In our readings this morning, we have two very different pictures of man’s relationship with God, on the one hand Elijah having to cover his face with his mantle when he came before the Almighty, to Peter’s experience of God reaching out his hand to save him. This question of who God is dominates today’s readings and the answer we make to it is of great importance and has profound effects on how we live our lives. If God is completely out there, beyond us, then we are alone and have no one to whom to call when we feel that we are sinking, and no way, no capacity to understand his will. If he is completely involved in human life, coterminous with it, then there is no external critique of human motivation and action in operation. God just becomes a really good bloke. It was said of the Liberal Protestant theologians of the C19th who were seeking to find the real Jesus behind the NT writings that they looked down a deep well and only saw the pale reflection of their own Liberal Protestant face. And there is the dilemma. If we make God too near to us in our thinking and feeling, we assimilate him into who we are and what we want. Those people who want a God of judgment, a God who wants only what they want and disapproves of what they disapprove of, of course, find him. Those who want a God of compassion, a God who is particularly indulgent of their foibles and failings in particular, find him.
So, how do we navigate our way through the variety of religious experience of which we aware, and through the competing claims that people make about God? Well, the answer, of course, is Jesus Christ - but that answer is only a restatement of the question in the form of - who is Jesus Christ? Is it your Jesus, or is it my Jesus, and does the Church’s Jesus resemble either of those? Are they faithful to the true Jesus, and who is the true Jesus? Jesus of Nazareth, or the Christ of faith, sitting at the right hand of the father in glory?
Well, to cut to the chase a little, and to simplify a little crudely: we need God to be both transcendent and immanent, we need him to be both out there and in here. If he is not out there, unlike us in that he is all-powerful and all-knowing, he is not able to help us, but is he is not here, well, he is too far away to help us for he probably wouldn’t see the problem. As St Irenaeus said, ‘that which is not assumed (in Jesus Christ) is not redeemed’. We need God to be fully here so that we know that we are saved, and that we know we are worth saving. We need our God to be all-powerful, and we need him to be close at hand.
Poor Peter, he comes in for a lot of criticism in the Gospels, and this one is no exception; ‘Man of little faith, why did you doubt?’. Well, I am tempted to jump to Peter’s defence and point out that he did not lack faith in Jesus, but only in himself, in the possibilities of faith working in his life. There is no doubt to whom he was calling out, and that he expected to be helped. “Lord, save me!”, he said, and saved he was. His failure was that he did not, we are to understand, use his faith to make all things possible for him as he walked towards the Lord. He is like each and every one of us in that respect, but he was saved nonetheless, and that is very good news indeed.
Our God is seen in Jesus Christ. He is both out there and in here. We are fed with his presence in the sacraments of the Church and in the life of faith: prayer, fellowship and reflection. Jesus is our constant companion, but he is also the living presence of a God who is beyond all analysis and understanding. When Jesus says “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”, it is not an invitation to theological debate, it is an assurance of salvation. Our Christian faith reveals to us a God who is all-powerful, but who is also here when we need him. A God who says “Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid! to a people who are in need new heart, a God who helps us when we feel that we are sinking. God is both out there and in here. He will always be there for us. We just need to try to keep walking towards him, whatever the circumstances.